A 22-year-old open wound
Every year on July 18, thousands of people gather to remember the victims of the AMIA bombing, and demand that justice prevails. (photo by Jaluj via commons.wikimedia.org)
After more than 20 years, an entire nation continues to search for answers and justice.
With an estimated population of 330,000, Argentina’s Jewish community is the largest in South America and, outside Israel, the sixth largest in the world. First arriving in Argentina in early days, Jews have continued to immigrate ever since. During its “golden era” (1900s to 1950s), an estimated 500,000 Jewish people lived there.
The vast majority of Jews in Argentina are Ashkenazi, from central and eastern Europe. From the start, this active, prosperous and engaged community has left its mark in local business, infrastructure, culture and politics. My family was part of this group; Argentina was the place we called home and where four generations of my family were born. AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina or the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association) is the central support organization for all Jews in Argentina, tracing its roots back to 1894.
Everything changed the morning of July 18, 1994, at 9:53 a.m. While I was attending a history class, more than 600 pounds of explosives hidden in a vehicle were detonated in front of AMIA. The explosion was followed by a cloud of smoke and dust seen for miles. In seconds, along with the iconic Jewish organization in Argentina and everything surrounding it, the building housing all of Argentina’s rich Jewish history was, simply, gone. This tragedy was followed by panic, mayhem, sirens, ambulances, calls for help, deaths totaling 85 and hundreds more victims, severely injured and traumatized, transported to hospital.
At my school, phones started to ring. The principal rushed into our classroom to have a private word with our teacher, who then broke the news that AMIA in Buenos Aires was bombed. We were in shock. The same black dusty cloud that could be seen above AMIA descended upon the student body, the teachers and the administrative staff. Frantic activity ensued and, within a few hours, the school was deserted.
My first reaction was concern for my family and friends, many of whom worked at AMIA. I would soon learn that, although one miraculously survived under the rubble and a few others were spared, having not yet arrived at the time of the attack, three died in the explosion. I would learn of the tremendous cultural and historical loss of books, manuscripts, community records, art, pictures and more. I would learn of the disorientation felt by so many who could not comprehend the magnitude of the attack. And I would learn of the rage of those who survived their loved ones. To this day, I will never forget the conversations around the dinner table that revealed the pervasive feeling we were no longer safe.
Some of my friends were immediately withdrawn from the private Jewish school I attended and transferred to the public school system. I would learn of sentiments such as “Jews should be concentrated in one place and live together so innocent Argentines would not suffer.” Yet, in my mind, we were all Argentines.
Over the following years, as I transitioned from my teenage to adult years, I would learn of government cover-ups, of the miscarriage of justice, and of injustice done in the name of greed and corruption. I would also learn of Hezbollah, Iran and other terrorist elements suspected of involvement one way or another. And I would be constantly reminded of the pain of those left behind, and the impunity of the perpetrators, which reinforced the sense of insecurity that took over a proud and vibrant Jewish community.
In spontaneous reaction, hundreds showed up to the site where the AMIA building had stood. Many, my father was among them, were volunteering to assist in the rebuilding process. Those were dark days. The community needed to reorganize. Within a week of the attack at Pasteur 633, a community building a few blocks away began to function. As the temporary head office of AMIA, the Ayacucho 632 site became the place where families sought information about the victims of the attack and where AMIA resumed essential operations, especially those pertaining to social services and community relations.
The Ayacucho building also became the place in which I started my journey as a Jewish community volunteer and where I later decided to pursue a professional career serving the Jewish community.
Five years after the attack, on the original site, a new building was opened that symbolized the creative drive of a community willing to preserve the heritage of a cultural tradition that honors life and collective memory.
This July 18, as every year, the bombing was commemorated with a ceremony in front of the new, now heavily fortified, AMIA: This year’s ceremony marked 22 years since the attack, Argentina’s deadliest bombing ever.
The AMIA bombing was an assault on all society and one that has left deep political scars, not just upon Argentina’s Jewish community. It is a symbol of the entire Argentine state and a society still searching for the truth. And the truth – about a sophisticated terrorist act of mass murder that sent a brutal message of destruction and death – must come to light. The attack is a wound that remains open to this day.
I vow to neither remain silent nor rest until those guilty of these attacks are apprehended, and I hope that the Argentine government will make every effort to ensure that the terrorists responsible for this horrendous act are brought to justice.
Viviana, Cristian and Guillermo, I will never forget. Porque tenemos memoria, exigimos justicia. Because we have memory, we demand justice.
Nico Slobinsky is director, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region. He was born and raised in Argentina before immigrating to Israel and, later, to Canada.